Newfoundland engineering alum’s ventilator nabs multiple design awards
Low-cost Aeolus prototype designed as effective alternative for developing countries.
Katie Stone’s Aeolus ventilator may have started out as a school project, but she’s determined to take it as far as it will go as a marketable, affordable medical device.
In fact, Stone feels it might perfectly fit the bill for developing countries that are crying out for ventilators, but can’t afford them.
The Aeolus started as a group effort with fellow Memorial University engineering students Desiree Van Heerden and Rachel Tobin. They took an idea proposed to them by engineering professor Stephen Bruneau, who suggested they try to invent a portable ventilator built around a bag valve mask, the mask with a hand-operated air bag you often see being used on hospital shows.
“The idea was to just create this cheap, robust ventilator that could be used in a pinch,” Stone said in an interview Friday, Aug. 20. “It wouldn’t replace traditional ventilators, but if the option was between nothing and this, you would pick this.”
The result was a big success, and won them second place in the Capstone design project, which engineering students spend the better of their final year completing.
Stone ended up finishing it herself in her basement because the city was in COVID-19 lockdown at the time.
“All of the stuff we either got from the engineering school, bought off Amazon or bought from Princess Auto,” she said, adding that anything beyond their $250 budget had to be paid for out of pocket.
The device essentially looks like a black toolbox with a digital interface, along with an air tank that’s used to inflate the air bag – they used an ordinary balloon to stand in as an airbag to be frugal.
And that’s where most student projects stop – at the prototype phase – but not this one. Stone went on to apply for the Evolution program at MUN’s Genesis Centre, where she spent eight weeks learning how entrepreneurship works, and was also accepted into the medtech readiness program offered by MUN medical school’s Bounce health innovation initiative.
Talking to respiratory therapists, paramedics and other health experts helped her understand how to make sure the device aligns with medical needs.
The next step is to get the ventilator approved by regulatory boards.
“To do that, you have to have a fully realized, developed product. So my next step now is to just meet with people that know how to do that and then determine the next steps on how to develop the product myself.”
She got a pretty big boost when she beat more than a dozen other entries in the Evolution program to take top prize at the end, and swept up the audience appreciation award as well.
Stone has a personal appreciation for how the Aeolus may help developing countries. She’s worked in international development in the past, and spent four months in Ghana under the auspices of Engineers Without Borders as one of her engineering co-ops.
In 41 African countries, there are only 4,000 ventilators, she notes.
“In South Sudan at the start of COVID-19, there was only one.”
The problem is that they’re expensive – between $25,000 and $50,000 brand new – and poorer countries can often only afford refurbished ones. Her aim is for the Aeolus to market for about $1,000.
And she already knows who her competition is. The Bird ventilator is the closest thing to her prototype, but it hasn’t been modified for years, and she hears people don’t like it, and it has no capability for adding oxygen to the airflow.
“The market is owned by the Bird, but no one really likes the Bird, but there’s nothing really else going on,” she said.
She hopes Aeolus proves to be an effective alternative for countries that are often stuck taking other countries’ rejects.
“I don’t like the idea of second-class care,” she said.